Ethnography of the University / Ethnography of the University: Focus on Diversity 2021 / Undergraduate Ethnography

Gendered Spaces at the Gym: Do Open Gyms Serve As a Safe Space, and for Whom, By Lidiia Tulenkova (Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity)

This final paper was part of the coursework for the Ethnographic Practicum course, “Ethnography of the University 2021: Focus on Diversity.”


I am participating in a pre-COVID Zumba class in Hart House. There is a huge well-lit space, packed with people of different genders working out together while standing in long lines of ten per line. I am at the center of the second line, trying to repeat the moves of the instructor who is facing our crowd. As there are no mirrors, all eyes are directed towards this energetic woman showing the exercises and encouraging us to move faster. I do the final jump and, finally, we take a break. I turn my head to a group of young people in the backline, making friendly fun of each other because of the awkwardness of their moves. Near them, I notice quite a few women in their 40s and 50s, standing in a fixed position with their hands crossed, exposing the awkwardness of being in the space with other people. Although I begin to smell the tension in the air, as all people in the room are breathing, moving, and the room is getting warmer, I feel less awkward myself, and ready for the next set of exercises. I turn my head and I see the eyes starring at me. Those eyes of a man in the right corner of the room would not stop looking at me. Not during the breaks nor during the exercises, not in a week when we come back for the next Zumba class, not in two weeks… I never went to the gym again. 

When we were given the topic of diversity for our ethnographic projects, I immediately thought of that moment. Reflecting on my feelings, I understood that the incident during the Zumba class made me feel excluded and uncomfortable. But why do I have to feel excluded, and why should I never come back again? Why is it about me, although Idid not do anything? After I shared my research topic with my friends, I got several messages, like the one you see in Figure 1, proving the relevance of my

Figure 1. A message from my female friend about women-only hours.

chosen topic. For some of my female friends, the idea itself of going to the gym is terrifying, and the bad reputation of gyms as “a male territory” is well recognized. Therefore, under the theme of gender diversity, my initial question was who exactly makes women feel intimidated. 

Following my biases, I was expecting to prove my initial theory about cisgender men being the core of the problem of why women feel intimidated. But, as I entered the field, the issue of gender diversity in gyms tuned out to be more complex and deeper than just about blaming men. I learned that some men also feel intimidated while being in a gym. This finding prompted the question: which people, and what gender has this power over people’s feelings in a gym setting? While researching gender diversity from the perspective of men and women, I realized the struggle of transgender people and non-binary people to cope not only with unpleasant interactions with other genders but also with the ideas about gender diversity held by those who manage gym facilities. Thus, trying to understand what issues stand behind this administrative understanding of diversity, I edited my research question to “do gyms at U of T serve as a safe space, and for whom?”, and went into the field! 

Methods and Limitations Sites

My sole sites of research were open gyms on the St. George campus at the University of Toronto, as the goal of my observations was to see people’s behaviour in an open gym setting, not guided by any sports programs. Thus, I was observing participants’ behaviour while also engaging in sports activities as an insider in two locations: 

  • Strength and Conditioning Center at the Athletic Center (SCC),
  • The open gym on the second floor of the Hart House Fitness Center.

What are “regular hours” and “women-only hours”?

As I was told by the managers of those two sites, due to differences in the space availability, Hart House Fitness Center has only regular hours of operation, while the Athletic Center hosts two types of “hours”: regular and women-only. 

During regular hours, which are operating most of each day, there are no limitations on who can enter the room and work out. As for women-only hours, they usually occur once or twice a day for a one-hour session. Based on the information from the gym’s website, a part of which you can see in Figure 2, and the interviews with staff, only “women and women-identifying individuals” are allowed to the space during this hour.  (“Women-Only Programs”).

Figure 2. Information on women-only hours at the Athletic Center 

Thus, because of these differences, my fieldwork schedule was naturally divided into three main categories: regular hours at the Athletic Center (AC), women-only hours at AC, and regular hours at the Hart House (HH). 

Besides, I installed a survey box for several hours during regular and women-only sessions at AC, and collected around 60 responses on the question “How does this space (the open gym) make you feel?”

Additionally, part of my analysis is drawn from the information found on Reddit, Instagram, gym websites. Finally, alongside occasional conversations, I conducted 7 interviews with gym participants and staff, each representing one of the following categories of people in gyms. Here and in the rest of the paper, all names are pseudonyms: 

  • a woman-identifying person attending women-only hours (Sophia),
  • a woman-identifying person attending both women-only and regular hours (Chloe), 
  • a woman-identifying person not attending open gyms (Rita)  –         a man (Alex)
  • a non-binary person who used to attend regular hours and switched to mainly womenonly hours (Eli)
  • the member of the administrative department at the Athletic Center (Matthew) –    the executive member at the Hart House Fitness Center (Timothy) 


Walking down the hallways of the sports facilities on the main campus of the University of Toronto, you will always run into at least a couple of “diversity wall posters” depicting either women exercising on cardio machines, or a group of people covered with a layer of rainbow colors and with a sign “Positive Space” on top of the image. It seems that diversity is everywhere, but is it actually? Interestingly, under those posters as well as on the website of the sports facilities where you can find them, there is always a note that the university makes about the fact that women “make up more than half of the U of T student body, [and] continue to be under-represented in most forms of physical activity” (“Women-Only Programs”). In fact, by making this statement, the university explicitly admits that the gyms on campus cannot be described as fully diverse, as some groups “continue to be under-represented”. Thus, from the first day of my ethnographic fieldwork, I understood that I chose the right site to study diversity. 

The transformation of the space

It is my first day of fieldwork and I am opening the door of the Strength and Conditioning room at the Athletic Center. It is a relatively small room with not a high ceiling, designed in a way that all sports equipment is located against the mirror walls and facing the middle of the room with some exceptions. In the middle, there is a free space for stretching, besides which there is a row of black weight racks. The area during regular hours is fully packed with men, around 20 people, lifting free weights in the middle of the room, doing chin-ups on the horizontal bars near the wall opposite from the entrance, training leg muscles on the left from where I am standing. The air is tense, everything is moving, everyone is busy exercising. On the right from the entrance door, there are 4 women, all running on the cardio machines, located in a row towards the corner of the room, and I decide to join them. 

Throughout my fieldwork, that cardio machine served me as a great observation station and allowed me to spot interesting patterns in people’s behaviour. First, while men usually walk around, change equipment, talk with other men, women, having chosen cardio machines in most scenarios, do not leave them till the end of the session. In fact, neither did I. For some reason, it felt too intimidating, and the cardio machines area seemed to be the only isolated corner in that male-dominated area. Secondly, there is almost no one talking to each other in the space. In an interview with one of the gym participants, Eli told me: “I recognize the same people, but no one ever approaches each other, no”. 

Comparing this environment to women-only hours, I saw a drastic transformation of this space. When the last man leaves the area, 25-30 women, who had been waiting outside for the end of a regular-hour session, are evenly spreading out in the open gym. They use all provided equipment and the entire space from the stretching area to the free weights and cardio machines.

Moreover, the greater expression of curiosity in terms of trying out new equipment that the women clearly never used before is undeniable as I saw women standing near the machines and trying to figure out how to use them. And even the communication between the women present in the space is different from what I saw during the regular hours. For women, it is easier to approach each other, and even I was approached by a woman who asked me how to use the cardio machine that I had been using while observing the room. Finally, I noticed more women wearing a sports bra, instead of a t-shirt and a sports bra set that covers the body more. As Sophia, a gym participant who attends only women-only hours, told me: 

“I feel like I don’t really need to think about it [clothes] that much. I just kind of grab whatever I feel like wearing rather than being like “oh, is someone going to like… look at me when I wear this…”. I just find it doesn’t matter so much for women’s only hours, [but] you know, unconsciously, [during the regular hours], you want to cover your body”. 

Thus, based on my observations, it is difficult to deny the unequal power relations between two different genders occupying the open gym space. During women-only hours, it seemed like the space temporarily “unfroze”, becoming the positive space for health improvement, curiosity, and exploration that the university is so proudly talking about on its promotional banners. However, why does this inclusive and positive environment have to be temporally limited for the women’s gender? And what creates the feeling of being intimidated in open gyms?

Open gyms are often perceived as “body-focused” (Sophia). And, perhaps, the most common problem that is on everyone’s lips, exposing the  unequal power relations among different genders  in gyms, is the problem of women being objectified and experiencing the men looking at them that makes the women feel uncomfortable. I went to the Athletic Center and collected survey responses from gym participants during regular hours, when all genders are welcome to the space, asking them an open-ended question on how the space made them feel. Below, you can see samples of some of the responses. 

Women: “pretty safe, occasionally observed”; “good, at time intimidating”; “I feel a bit uncomfortable with being 1 of few females in here”.Men: “comfortable, a place to grow without judgement”; “safe, accepted, comfortable”; “makes me feel included”.

I did not receive a single response with negative experiences from men. They shared that they felt generally “safe and included” at the gyms. In contrast the majority of women shared the feeling of being “observed” and “intimidated” during regular hours. Before drawing any conclusions, I asked the same question to the women attending women-only hours when, based on the policies, there are only women and women-identifying individuals are present in the space:

Women (women-only hours):

“more relaxed than in mixed (regular)”;                    “Fewer problematic thoughts about eyes watching”;

“opposite of judged”;

“women-hours make me feel safe”; “safe and free of judgement”.

                                                                                    “comfortable, no judgement, safe”.             

Based on the results, it becomes clear that there are unequal power relations in the space that are confirmed by the evidence that women feel intimidated in the presence of men. This feedback provokes serious questions about the efficiency of the university’s mission to create a safe space for diverse groups (“Equity, Diversity, Excellence Statement”). But what exactly makes women uncomfortable? 

Interestingly, from more than 50 survey responses that I received and from what I found on U of T Reddit from women sharing their experiences being in the same gym space with men (like the one that you see in Figure 3), most women share variations of the same idea about the “eyes watching”. This idea implies the feeling of being constantly observed. However, it is not just about the fact that people, while being in the same space, will very likely glance at other people at some point. Instead, the idea of the “eyes watching” points to the so-called “male gaze” that not only reflects the intentionality of the act of directing the eyes towards a particular person, but also signifies the hierarchical status of the one who is watching and the one who is being watched (Mulvey, 1975)  To elaborate on this, based on Mulvey’s initial theory, a male gaze implies the objectification of a woman by contextualizing her as a sexual object from the perspective of a heterosexual man (1975). Since the gym space has an ultimate focus on the body and bodily movements, it can easily become sexualized, based on the context in which one can put it. Thus, in most of the responses, there was a clear sign of women worrying about being sexualized in the space. Evidence for this is found in the urge to cover the body more during regular hours, when the space is predominately occupied by men, compared to women-only hours. What women wear is determined by the tolerance of surrounding people, not by what women feel comfortable wearing. As Schroeder argued, drawing from Mulvey’s theory, the male gaze signifies “a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze” (1998). We see the reflection of this idea in the gym setting. The underrepresentation and low statistics of women attending sports facilities, noted by university authorities, is the result of an environment where the male gaze serves as a tool for the creation and reproduction of unequal power relations among different genders.

Figure 3. Screenshot from U of T Reddit.


“Gym is a micro-society”

In the interview with a member of the administrative apparatus at the Athletic Center, Matthew (pseudonym), I asked: 

“So, do you think that so-called male gaze exists at open gyms?”

Matthew shakes his head and takes a couple of seconds to choose the right words. Those seconds that I wait for the response are absolutely worth it, as he responds with a quote that became pivotal for my entire project: “You know, at gyms, we are a micro-society. People do not stop being people”. This statement gets to the heart of the inequality in power relations between different genders in a gym space. The “micro-society” that the gyms reproduce implies that all existing social issues, including the male gaze, exist and freely thrive in sports facilities. 

Additionally, that phrase also made me think about the university’s role in such an environment. Based on the Equity, Diversity, and Excellence Statement that I mentioned earlier, the university “will strive to make considerations of equity a part of the processes of setting policies, developing procedures, and making decisions at all levels of the institution” (2006; 2). And, in fact, both Hart House Fitness Center and Athletic Center have policies on how to intervene in physical assault. But what about the male gaze, being one of the most common forms of invisible, non-physical harassment in open gyms according to the interviews and survey responses collected for this project? When I asked several physical activity facilitators supervising one of the open gyms on campus what would they do if they spotted a gym user persistently looking at another gym user and making them uncomfortable, I did not receive a clear response with a set of policies. Some of the responses were: “I would of course intervene if it was something physical”, “I am not sure, it depends on the context”. This data revealed a gap in instructions related to non-physical violence towards members of the gyms. When interviewing the managers of the gyms, Timothy and Matthew, the great emphasis was on intervening in case of physical harassment, sexual violence, or anything else that was reported to the staff on site. And even after noting that the gym is a micro-society, Matthew rushed to explain: “…but we are trying to minimize any harms. If there are any complaints, we intervene”. Thus, I made a conclusion that aside from evident physical or verbal violence, open gyms have extremely underdeveloped policies on such inexplicit forms of harassment as, for example, the male gaze. In this context, the university is not being proactive, but instead waits for a complaint to be made, encourages gym users to “go and speak out” (Matthew), instead of taking actions to intervene or prevent the incidents. 

The gap in policies reveals the university’s attitude towards unequal power distribution. Gender inequality in open gyms is not about something natural or inevitable. It is if not constructed, then definitely maintained by the university. The lack of policies creates freedom for the invisible behaviour, contributing to the character of the gyms as a not safe space where the male gaze is accepted. Thus, the lack of policies and the creation of a space where the male gaze can thrive unconsciously protects the male dominance in the gym setting.  

Naturalization of the male gaze

Further analyzing the comment of one of the women quoted above, “fewer problematic thoughts about the eyes watching,” I recalled that during my other interviews women do not always explicitly say who is watching, who is making them uncomfortable. Thus, instead of using a personalized phrase like “a man looking”, women depersonalize the source where the look is coming from, saying “the eyes watching me”. This observation suggests that the institution’s acceptance of the male gaze in open gyms has taken root in the depersonalization and naturalization of this invisible form of harassment by the victims themselves. Rita, one of the people who does not go to gyms at all, shared that “going to the gym, you are expecting the male gaze”. Such acceptance and naturalization by both the parties: the university and the gym users, including the ones who are watching and who are being watched, creates the environment of ultimate male dominance in the space that is extremely difficult to unroot. Representing this finding in the diagram (Figure 4), I suggest that the promise of equity for diverse groups is not met. All genders are welcome to the space, but the space is not safe for all genders. The underrepresentation of women is predominately rooted in their feeling uncomfortable in the space, which results from the male gaze, a factor that is unconsciously supported by the university’s policies, or, better to say, a lack of them.

Figure 4. The root of the problem of why women are underrepresented in open gyms. 

Women-only hours: who are “you”? 

Of course, there is an attempt to segregate two groups of people who can potentially harass or be harassed by creating a women-only hour that is supposed to serve as a solution to the problem.  

During women-only hours, based on the regulations, all staff in the room should be females, access to the room is provided only to women and women-identifying individuals, and the windows on the entrance doors to the Sports and Conditioning room are covered with a special stop-sign. Let’s take a closer look at it. The sign serves as a guardian that protects roomusers from unnecessary gazes. However, who does the sign address? The large red circle with the word “stop” in the center of the poster with a black background grabs our attention. The note “women-only hours are on now” is followed by the schedule of women-only hours, and then, the author of the banner continues: “You are welcome to visit [other gym rooms inside the facility]. Thank you for your cooperation”. Who is the “you” hailed by the poster? The university’s purpose with women-only hours is to create a safe environment for the “underrepresented” group, but this “you” is not for women; the emphasis of the sentence is again on men. Instead of highlighting the safety of the environment and welcoming women and women-identifying individuals, the poster with such an aggressive design is trying to stop the men, the dominant group at open gyms. The chosen words once again expose the ultimate power of men as a group and more importantly, whom the sports facilities are made for, functioning for, thinking of, and addressing.

Figure 5 and Figure 6. Stop sign for women-only hours at the Athletic Center. 

Even the existence of the women-only hours speaks for the fact that the university and sports facilities are not actually engaged in “doing” diversity, instead, they are “pretending” diversity by implementing the “solution” to segregate two groups, men and women, instead of creating an equitable space where all groups can be included with equal power relations. In contrast, by “doing” diversity, I mean making concrete steps to promote equitable coexistence of diverse groups in the same space at the same time. From my point of view, segregating two groups does not achieve equity either inside the gym, where the university creates a space for women to have a few hours, or in the broad scope of our society. As one of the gym users shared on U of T Reddit: “Personally, I find the policy lazy – it gives the school the ability to avoid dealing with issues by segregating people instead of confronting the issues or problems” (2015). Thus, the point about the existence of women-only hours in the gym schedule, that the gym managers shared with me when I asked how the sports facilities address gender diversity, becomes not valid. The measure to create limited time for the space to become safe, although attempting to address diversity, does not get at the root problem. Instead, it hides the issue of gender inequity that is not being addressed. The women-only hour is not about the integration of all genders at the same time in a protected common space. Instead, it is about inclusion by exclusion. And the inclusion of women is still temporary as when the women-only hour is over, the “excluded” group of men will take back the power over the gym space.

Figure 7. Feedback of a gym user about regular and women-only policy. 

Women-only hours as a “safe” space

Confronting the deeply rooted problem of unequal gender power relations in open gym, we might acknowledge that a women-only hour is not such a bad idea, since it creates, a safe space for women in open gyms, even though temporally But… Does it actually? 

For 1.5 hours I have been standing in the Strength and Conditioning area of the Athletic

Center collecting responses for my survey box about how the space makes the participants feel. Waiting for more people to fill out the forms, I observe the transformation of the area as the women-only hour has begun. Suddenly, the door opens, and I see a male staff entering the door. For the next five minutes, he stands near the entrance talking to the female staff on site. The women exercising in the closest proximity to the entrance seem to be confused and alert. 

In the interview with Sophia, a gym user who attends only women-only hours, I asked her about such incidents and she said that events, when a man enters the space during womenonly hours, do not occur every time she is in the area, but very often.  

In some time after the male staff member leaves, the door opens one more time. It is a male construction worker wearing this special orange-green jacket and carrying some tools. I look at the female staff who is currently supervising the room. She looks confused and is about to say something but the worker interrupts her while making his way into the room and pointing to somewhere in the opposite corner of the room saying: “that’s okay, I’m just cutting [the way] here, yeah”. 

We never found out what the interruption was about, but a new question emerged: are there any policies on how a staff member should intervene if a man enters the room during women-only hours? Of course, the incidents described above could be explained by the absence of the stop sign that the staff had forgotten to put on the doors. However, the question about the safety and control of the space remains valid as Sophia clearly meant the non-women-identifying gym users who periodically enter the space during women-only hours. 

Thus, as women have to be constantly alert in case a man enters the door, even the artificially created environment that is supposed to be protected for women-identifying individuals is not entirely safe. “It is how it is,” said Sophia, in the men-dominated space. 

Thus, the threshold between the women-only space and the rest of the sports facility not only sows the seed of doubt if the diversity at open gyms is that “diverse” in terms of inclusion and exclusion of different groups, but also raises a question about the criteria that one should meet in order to be allowed to the space during women-only hours. While trying to maintain relative safety during women-only hours and playing this “inclusion by exclusion” game, the university does not notice how the policy discriminates against the whole range of other genders who do not fall into the binary category of being a man or a woman.

Women-only hours, forgotten genders, and who is allowed to the space

It was an October evening when I received a message from Sophia. Earlier, I had shared with her my concerns about how the university monitors that there are only women present in the space during women-only hours. Responding to my initial thoughts, Sophia texted: 

“The way I see it is like this – I think that we use the words women’s only hour really just to refer to non-cis men hour.” 

Exactly. But if by “women-only”, we imply the range of genders and mean each and everyone but cisgender men, why does the university call it “women-only”? What about nonbinary, transgender, gender fluid, and the list of all other genders? In fact, in the interviews with both members from the administration of the Athletic Center and Hart House, it seemed to me that this question was the most difficult to answer. “You know, we do not judge by the appearance”, I was told by one of the managers, “women-only hours are for women and womenidentifying people”. I agreed and followed up with “…and if they are not women or womenidentifying people?” I was told that then, the facility provides a variety of other places to exercise during this hour. Everything sounded right, according to the rules written on the stop sign that we mentioned earlier. And I was ready to move on to the next question when I realized: “but what about non-binary? Non-binary people do not identify themselves as either a man or a woman”. 

Pause. Hesitation. “Well, women-only hours are for women or *with an emphasis* women-identifying individuals”. Despite my attempts to elaborate on what I mean by nonbinary (when a person does not necessarily “identify” themselves with either a man or a woman), this was the only answer I got. It sounded more like a mantra that was trying to hide the real answer to the question. As Sara Ahmed describes it, it is an example of institutional speech acts (2012; 54-58) or learned phrases about diversity that serve as a shield against the statements pointing to the lack of diversity. Such learned “safe” phrases do not deny the existing discrimination, nor do they expose it.  

Thus, it became clear to me that the understanding of diversity in open gyms is limited to binary categories. There are no hours for non-binary and transgender people. And if your gender is outside of the binary category (a man or a woman), the university inexplicitly offers you the opportunity to choose your identity for one hour to determine if you are allowed or not to this protected space. In other words, to choose if it is you who should be protected, or others who should be protected from you. It seems like genders other than “a man” or “a woman” are simply forgotten or left to deal with the gyms’ systems and policies on their own. 

About the visual femininity and masculinity: “using our best judgement” 

In the interview with Eli, a non-binary person who works out predominately during women-only hours, they shared with me their experiences on entering the space during womenonly hours:  “I do sometimes feel a bit too masculine for the women’s only hours, but I think the way I look… I still look pretty feminine, so people can kind of assume that I am a woman or something like that, so it’s okay”. 

This comment pointed out the worry of non-binary people about their gender expression. To better understand this worry, during one women-only hour, I approached Tara, a young supervisor monitoring the Strength and Conditioning room, with a question about how she makes sure there are only women present in the space. After looking around the room and the people exercising, Tara said: “I do not know, you can just… see. We do not ask, obviously”. 

These two comments together describe the role that the visual aspect of gender, or gender performativity, plays in defining who is allowed to be in the space. The staff members do not ask, but, as Matthew said “use their best judgment” to, so to say, understand one’s gender. And again because open gyms operate in binary categories, the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the staff to define if the person entering is feminine enough to enter the space “for women and women-identifying individuals”. As Butler said, “gender identity is a performative accomplishment compelled by social sanction and taboo” (1988; 520). In this context, the “taboos” are measured by the appearance of the gym users. Determinations are primarily visual, based on one’s appearance, physical characteristics, and the concepts of femininity and masculinity and how they are understood. 

From my conversation with Matthew, I learned that “everyone who chooses to come in [to the women-hours], [the facilitators] trust them, and everyone who comes in is welcome”. To avoid conflict, staff members do not approach anyone in the gym area. Instead, staff members wait to see if there are any complaints from other gym users currently occupying the space about the person who concerns them. And even then, the staff speak only with the one who is complaining. This is a problematic strategy as it redirects and transfers the unofficial and oftentimes unconscious duty of evaluating one’s gender from the staff, as representatives of the administration, to the users of the space – women exercising in the area during women-only hours. 

How feminine becomes a new hegemonic masculine 

Eli and I were sitting at a table, discussing Eli’s experiences working out during womenonly hours. “Sometimes, they [women present in the gym] look surprised, […] because I think sometimes people will think that I’m a man, and then change their mind,” shares Eli, smiling and looking at me. During our conversation, I felt that Eli wanted to emphasize that they feel independent from any opinions of other people in the gym, but still, they feel more comfortable during women-only hours compared to regular hours, where men would give them looks, trying to understand their gender belonging. However, for the duration of our interview, something seemed off about the women-only hours, up until I heard the following phrase: “I definitely get a lot of looks and a lot of people are trying to figure out what gender I am” Eli says, shrugging and awkwardly shaking their head. That phrase acknowledged the existence of another problem during women-only hours and prompted me to deepen my analysis of gender, diversity and power. 

Following the lack of policies and the discriminatory binary system in the gym, controversial practices of defining and categorizing genders are transferred to the general members of the gym space. In other words, during women-only hours, staff members are waiting for the gym users, women, to express any concerns regarding their comfort of being in the same space with some particular person. Thus, as the staff, “in order to avoid conflict” (Matthew), would not intervene in explicit discussions of someone’s gender and their acceptance in the space, the power of inexplicit judging is being transferred to the women using the space. Here the women, gaining the power over the room during women-only hours, acquire the dominant position that is usually occupied by men during regular hours. Following the gym’s binary system and the description of women hours for “women and women-identifying individuals”, women automatically take the authority of defining if someone is “feminine enough” (Eli) to be here. Thus, in this context, the feminine becomes a new hegemonic masculine, that is described as dominant and aggressive (Connell, 2005). Thus, when including women and excluding men, the system, in fact, also excludes other genders in a way that femininity becomes dominant or standard. 

Invisible power 

When analyzing the data from all reports I got on people’s experiences in open gyms for the duration of my research, I noticed an important pattern: in one way or another, most of the people who answered my questions mentioned the feeling of being judged and watched. In the last interview of the project, I was having a discussion with Alex, a man who uses gyms during regular hours, when I realized that some men also experience the gaze and the feeling of being watched. But how and why? 

“You do some exercises, your own sets, and always feel like you’re being watched because of the people around. Maybe I am overly conscious that people are watching me… I know they are not, but I feel like they are judging me. I know other people don’t care because I don’t care about their workouts [either]. But I subconsciously, you just… you feel that… like you they are judging you, but it is subconscious” – Alex was explaining, trying to acknowledge the existence of some sort of invisible power over people’s bodies in the gym setting.

In my attempt to understand what that invisible power was, I was trying to put together all elements of this puzzle. No one talking to each other, some people not moving a lot around the area, the feelings of being judged, watched… These descriptive experiences are very similar to what Foucault explained as a “state of conscious and permanent visibility” (Foucault 1979; 201), or the Panopticon effect. A Panopticon prison is a circular structure at the center of which is a tower with wide windows that serves as an observation station for a supervisor who has the power to see everyone in the prison (Bartky 1998; 27). Similarly, open gyms create a sense of constant surveillance. However, instead of a tower with a supervisor, the spatial organization of the gym with mirror walls reflecting everything and everyone in the space creates a new level of body monitoring by the participants themselves. In addition to the existing, intentional looks (for example, the male gaze or gender-identification look), it creates a psychological illusion that somebody in the space can be looking at you right now through the mirror and staying unnoticed. The point of the invisible power that the mirrors inside the gym create is that it cannot be controlled, noticed, and therefore, everyone present in the gym becomes self-conscious about their body, their behaviour, monitoring and disciplining themselves. However, even in a place like Hart House Fitness Center, where there are no mirrors in the open gym, the Panopticon effect is also created by the organization of the space where almost all equipment is facing outward, meaning that you never know who might be behind your back watching you or if there is someone watching you at all. 


As a person who feared even to think about going to a gym, I can say that this project challenged me. I pushed myself into the unknown, or known only as a space of ultimate male dominance. However, the issue of gender diversity in open gyms turned out to be far more complex than I thought. Yes, we cannot deny men’s dominance and the power of this gender over the space. The male gaze has been naturalized not only by the institution but even by gym users who experience the male gaze. And gender inequality took roots in the system of the institution, with a lack of policies and the posting of signs (literal and figurative) of male dominance that highlight for whom the space is functioning. However, it is not always just about the men. There are three groups which occupy the gym space: the dominant group (men), the marginalized group recognized by the gyms’ administration (women), and the invisible marginalized group (genderqueer people, or those who do not identify themselves within binary categories). Thus, the diversity, implying the presence of diverse people in the space, that exists in the gyms is possible only by the temporary exclusion of one group to, also temporary, include another. Together, contradicting the definition of diversity itself as the act of respect and equitable and safe inclusion of differences, diverse groups cannot coexist in the space as the institution does not want to address the root of the problem. Instead, it acknowledges the fact that invisible harassment and discriminatory processes are inevitable, because “people do not stop being people”. Hence, a gym space becomes a space of unlimited and invisible harassment, that is, in fact, neither being monitored nor prevented but accepted and naturalized.  Moreover, by saying that it is not always about men, we should not deny the fact that the lack of policies and the use of best judgment that cannot be unbiased, occasionally transfer the hegemonic power to the women. The outcome is to maintain the gender hierarchy in open gyms where gender nonconforming individuals stand at the bottom of ladder, being constantly monitored, and evaluated by their gender and gender expression.  

As Ahmed states, “the promise of diversity is that it can be both attached to those bodies that “look different” and detached from those bodies as a sign of inclusion” (2012; 65). Thus, the gym spaces at U of T are diverse, in the sense that there is a variety of people of different gender groups who want to work out in these sports centers. And the institution acknowledges this diversity. But there is little room for equitable coexistence of these diverse groups. Thus, there is a need to create a safe equitable space, where diversity is maintained with the inclusion, acceptance, and detachment of the bodies, as Ahmed said (2012; 65). For now, there is actually no one, not a single group of gym users, who is truly included: women are intimidated by the naturalized male gaze, men are excluded during women-only hours, and other genders like nonbinary are isolated from the entire system of the gym’s operation. Looking into the future where there is hope for a change, a gym, in fact, is “a micro-society”, but its confined scale gives a chance to the institution to create an environment of equal gender relations, instead of reproducing the gender-based inequality that exists in society at large. 


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